State education department requests $3.29 billion budget

Michael Smith
Oklahoma State Department of Education Superintendent Joy Hofmeister addresses a legislative budget hearing on Thursday. The department is asking lawmakers for $3.29 billion next year, a $220 million increase from FY2020.

OKLAHOMA CITY — The latest budget request from the Oklahoma State Department of Education received its first bit of legislative scrutiny on Thursday as State Superintendent Joy Hofmeister defended the $3.29 billion price tag. Lawmakers from both House and Senate budget committees heard about the request for $220 million more than last year’s budget for K-12 schools.

Hofmeister presented the joint committee with six goals she wants her department to achieve by 2025, including a reduction of emergency-certified teachers and increased reading levels. The nearly hour-long presentation and resulting questions from committee members also looked at efforts to put more counselors in public schools.

Rep. Tammy Townley, R-Ardmore, attended Thursday’s hearing and said she has been thrilled with the direction of Oklahoma education but is unsure if a spending increase is possible. “This year...we’re going to be running a very flat budget, so I don’t know if there is going to be any extra funding,” she said.

House Appropriations & Budget Subcommittee on Education Chair Mark McBride said that after two consecutive years of adding funds for classroom support, he anticipates putting more money into the state school funding formula.

“Better education equals better health care, lower incarceration rates, a more diverse business climate and much more,” McBride said in a statement.

While the growth in annual enrollment numbers since 2011 has slowed over the past five years, Hofmeister said during her presentation that some situations for Oklahoma students present mounting challenges for education. “You can see the needs are actually increasing in a greater way over time as we have more students that are having needs in special education, English learners, children who have low socioeconomic status, et cetera,” she said.

Much of the proposed spending increase comes from a nearly $118 million increased investment in operational dollars. While $92 million of that is needed to keep up with the growing number of English learners, homeless students, or children of incarcerated parents, the other $25 million would be used to hire additional kindergarten and first grade teachers to meet class size limits.

“It would get us to a statutory threshold created in Senate Bill 193 last session for enforcing class size limits,” she said.

Another major contributor to the proposed education spending increase is an additional $32.8 million for the department’s Flexible Benefits Allowance, or healthcare coverage for employees. According to the request, the additional funding would keep pace with previous growth and accounts for more staff and higher premiums.

Lawmakers had plenty of questions for Hofmeister after her presentation, including requests for specific details to improve student reading levels and a three-year plan to hire more than 1,100 new school counselors.

For instance, the proposed budget asks for a $125,000 increase in Reading Sufficiency Act (RSA) funding that targets kindergarten through third grade students who are below their suggested grade reading level. When asked by Rep. Rhonda Baker, R-Yukon, if that funding would include certain spending restrictions that denied a school system in her district from purchasing Chromebooks, Hofmeister admitted that the topic would have to be reviewed.

Other lawmakers asked about a plan to hire more school counselors. Hofmeister explained that a $19.2 million request would be used to hire 366 new school counselors in an effort to reduce the ratio of students to counselors. That proposed effort would be part of a larger $57.5 million plan to hire 1,103 new counselors over three years.

The OSDE budget is regularly the largest departmental budget in overall state spending. The current budget request will be considered by lawmakers once the second regular session of the 57th Legislature reconvenes on Monday. According to McBride, House subcommittees will have until Feb. 27 to pass bills to the full Appropriations & Budget Committee.